Algeria voted on Saturday in a parliamentary election that was marked by low turnout amid boycott calls and a crackdown on dissent.
Pro-government parties had urged Algerians to turn up in large numbers for the “crucial vote” hoping to restore stability after two years of turmoil since longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to resign.
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Saturday’s vote also followed a presidential election in 2019 and a referendum on an amended constitution last year, but many Algerians still think real power is wielded by the army and security forces.
The opposition Hirak movement has called for a boycott after seven of its leaders were arrested on Thursday.
Polls closed at 19:00 GMT and results are expected on Sunday. Turnout was just 30.2 percent, the lowest in at least 20 years for legislative elections, electoral commission chief Mohamed Chorfi said.
By comparison, turnout was 35.7 percent for the last legislative vote in 2017.
About 24 million Algerians are eligible to vote to elect 407 members of the People’s National Assembly for a five-year term.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said decisions were made by the majority of those who voted, regardless of turnout.
“For me, it’s not the turnout percentage that’s important, it’s whether the legislators that the people elect have sufficient legitimacy,” he said after casting his vote in the capital, Algiers. “This election is a new step to build a new Algeria.”
Schoolteacher Ali Djemai, 33, started queuing early to cast his vote in the city. “We hope the next parliament will be a force pressing for change that the majority want,” he said.
But in the Kabylie region, often a focus of political opposition, riot police guarded polling stations where activists sought to burn ballot boxes and some voting centres closed early.
“Elections will not give the regime legitimacy, and repression and arrests will not stop the people’s peaceful revolution,” said Samir Belarbi, a prominent Hirak figure.
The Hirak movement has been spearheading the anti-government protests calling for fundamental changes to the political system in the country, which was ruled by Bouteflika for 20 years.
Seven leading protest movement figures, including leading opposition figure Karim Tabbou, were arrested on Thursday while on Friday police deployed heavily in the capital, blocking any bid by the Hirak movement to hold anti-government protests.
The early election is supposed to exemplify Tebboune’s “new Algeria”, with an emphasis on young candidates and those outside the political elite.
The head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Said Salhi, has denounced the crackdown that preceded the vote.
The “repressive atmosphere and the restrictions placed on human rights and freedoms mean these elections have no democratic value”, Salhi said.
Farida Hamidi, a Hirak activist in Paris, said the election meant little to young Algerians dreaming of change.
“We reject it all: the president, the parliament, the constitution, everything done by this military junta which has been ruling Algeria since 1962 – we want something else,” she said.
Calls for boycott
Hirak has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in 2019 to force longtime president Bouteflika to resign, after he launched a bid for a fifth term.
The movement returned to the streets in February after an almost-year-long break due to the coronavirus pandemic, having also survived a campaign of arrests, a presidential election and a constitutional referendum partly aimed at burying it.
But the government stepped up its crackdown against Hirak last month, blocking protests and arresting hundreds of activists who have defied new restrictions on public gatherings.
Independent journalist Khaled Drareni and the director of a pro-reform radio station, Ihsane El Kadi, were also among seven people arrested on Thursday.
“These arrests mark a chilling escalation in the Algerian authorities’ clampdown on the rights to freedom of expression and association,” Amnesty International said in a statement, reporting more than 200 people were in detention in connection with the Hirak movement.
“Instead of rounding up journalists and political opponents in a bid to crush dissent and intimidate members of the Hirak protest movement, Algeria’s authorities should focus on respecting their human rights obligations.”
Old guard, economic woes
President Tebboune claims to have responded to Hirak’s main demands “in record time”, but says those still protesting are “counter-revolutionaries” in the pay of “foreign parties”.
Powerful armed forces Chief of Staff Said Chengriha has warned against any “action aimed at disrupting” the vote.
The protest movement says Tebboune’s past role as premier under Bouteflika confirms its narrative that the old guard, in power since Algeria’s 1962 independence from France, retains a firm grip on power.
Established parties linked to Bouteflika’s rule – the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic National Rally (RND) – are seen as likely to lose seats, being discredited and blamed for Algeria’s political and economic crisis.
Islamist parties are also seeking to take advantage of the Hirak boycott to increase their representation – but with their vote split between five rival parties, they may struggle to make real gains.
“With such a slew of candidates, the calculation of power is simple: to elect a patchwork assembly, without a majority, which will allow the president to create his own parliamentary majority with which he will govern,” said political scientist Rachid Grime.
Yasmine Hasnaoui, a board member of the Institute of Saharan Studies Al Andalous, noted that while many candidates running were independents, of which many were women, several of those candidates belonged to the “same system”.
“Are they going to bring whatever the current system is asking for? That’s the question,” she told Al Jazeera.
Algeria is Africa’s fourth-largest economy and is heavily dependent on oil revenues. It struggles with unemployment at more than 12 percent, according to the World Bank. It has also been hit hard by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 3,500 people in the country, according to the health ministry.
“Elections in Algeria have always proved that they are not the solution. The solution lies in democratic transition, it also lies in a dialogue around a table in order to solve the crisis,” said activist Sofiane Haddadji.